If you want to write about the Vietnam War, you need to read about it.
But there’s so much material out there, where do you start?
Go right to Vietnam: A History by former Time, Life and Washington Post Southeast Asia correspondent Stanley Karnow. Published in 1983 as a companion to the PBS series “Vietnam: A Television History,” it’s a sweeping narrative of American involvement in Vietnam.
A close second is A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan, a Vietnam War correspondent for UPI and The New York Times. The Pulitzer Prize-winner from 1988 tells the story of an Army lieutenant colonel who at first challenged, then embraced, how America was fighting the war. This book will help you see why we lost it.
Two books made up my early reading of the Vietnam War: Ron Kovics’ Born on the Fourth of July, from 1976 (later made into a movie), and Michael Herr’s Dispatches, from 1977. I was a year out of college when my dad recommended Dispatches, saying it was powerful enough to give him nightmares.
To understand infantry combat in Vietnam, read We Were Soldiers Once … and Young, by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (retired) and Joseph L. Galloway. This 1992 book, also made into a movie, is the story about the men of the 7th Cavalry who in 1965 fought the North Vietnamese in the Ia Drang Valley.
A must book for writers is Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation was Robbed of its Heroes and its History by B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley, published in 1998. Burkett, a Vietnam veteran, and Whitley expose phony heroes and show how Vietnam vets have been unfairly demonized. The book gives a valuable lesson in getting military documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
I also recommend Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, originally published in 1985 by The New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission. Kurt Vonnegut called this collection of letters and poems “the sad and beautiful countermelody of truth.”
In fiction, there’s Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, first published in 1990. Interestingly for me, O’Brien served with the Army’s Americal Division, the more common name of the 23rd Infantry Division, in Vietnam in 1969. My cousin Nicky Venditti, an Army helicopter pilot who is the subject of my book, Quiet Man Rising: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam, was also assigned to the Americal Division and was also in Vietnam in 1969. Nicky, however, only survived eleven days.
Two books that deal with the Americal Division helped me with my story about Nicky. One is Maj. Gen. Lloyd B. Ramsey, U.S. Army Retired: A Memoir, from 2006. Ramsey was the commander of the Americal Division at the time Nicky was on the Americal’s base at Chu Lai. My wife, Mary, and I visited the general at his home in McLean, Virginia, in 1998, and I have had numerous phone interviews with him.
The other book is Hostile Fire: The Life and Death of First Lieutenant Sharon Lane, written by Philip Bigler and published in 1996. Sharon Lane was a nurse at the evac hospital at Chu Lai. She was killed in a North Vietnamese rocket attack in June 1969 and was to be the only American servicewoman killed by enemy fire in the war.
Sharon’s replacement at the evac hospital was the subject of my last blog, Lynn O’Malley Bedics, who in July 1969 tended to Nicky as he lay dying after an Army instructor unwittingly detonated a grenade.
Reading these books about the Vietnam era has helped me connect the people I meet who were there with the events that dominated the headlines. Talking with Gen. Ramsey and Lynn O’Malley Bedics and reading of their experiences gave me the material I needed to fill out Nicky’s story.
David I met you at the emmaus public libraryand havebeen an avid fan and heard about your book andheard aboutnicky.
I saved a column you wrote 7 years ago about Fr.Mcelduff. In it, he mentioned that he is looking for the man john who died in his arms in world war 11.
Did he ever find him?
My phone is 610-794-6433. I don’t check my email very often but you can reach me at 1901 Linden, Apt 620, Allentown PA. 18102
I am very interested in hearing how Fr. McElduff is doing.
Your columns are great. I really enjoy your blog.
I was in Chu Lia during a rocket attack in 1969, something like maybe 8 to 12 rockets in the first one. I’m not sure if it is same one or not, I don’t remember the month. I was on perimeter watch, the first of two that night in a USMC bunker just off the village when I saw the long streaks of a rocket launch from the mountains out past 9th engineers. I called in the clock position of the launch and approximate time in seconds from launch to over-flight to our CoC using the field phone. There was another call in from a bunker farther south just about at the same time according to the CoC operator also with a clock position given. Mine was something like 11:00 from my position and the other 1:00 from their position. Who ever I spoke to said they would get the information out and probably a patrol would go out on a search and destroy. I don’t know the result of that information but on the same morning several hours after the first attack Chu Lia base was again hit with many more rockets from the same location in the mountains, we lost three of our officers in that attack FLC Sub unit A.
I always wondered why the second attack should have ever occurred until reading “It Doesn’t Take a Hero” by General Swartzkoff.
My younger brother, Anthony (Tony) Peterson was killed in a battle in Long Khanh July 3, 1969, 13 day before his 20th birthday. He had only been in Viet Nam a short time
I was an Army nurse assigned to the 91st Evac hospital in July from October 1969 to October 1970. I arrived four months after Sharon Lane was killed at the hospital. I have written a book about my year in Vietnam complete with photos that I took. The title of the book is “Vietnam Nurse: Mending and Remembering”. I have made 4 return trips to Vietnam since the war. Author—Lou Eisenbrandt
Hi Lou, congratulations on your book and thanks for letting us know. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Dear David, I wasn’t over there but I’ve probably read just about eveything, including you and some remarkable you tube reminiscences, and for my money one of best (semi-)fiction accounts and most overlooked is Sympathy For the Devil, by a SF sargeant Kent Anderson. (Yes, later we became friends.) I’ve never seen anybody else purposely sidestep “O-I’m-such-a-reluctant-liberal-stuck-here” and then suck you into the world of a kid given heavy weapons and sent out to play–and then turning that all against you to send your own enjoyment floating face down down in the river.
Hi John, thanks for reading my book. I’m not familiar with “Sympathy for the Devil,” but you’ve given it quite a recommendation. Sounds like an eye-opener with high impact. There are so many gut-wrenching personal stories from that war, and so many nightmares.